Saturday, December 6, 2014

Eric Gardner and Broken Windows

There is a philosophy of policing called Broken Windows that played a role in the Eric Gardner incident. It relates back to some research on buildings and cars. It found that when one broken window on a car or a building was not repaired the result was catastrophic. The toleration of that brokenness acted like a signal to the whole community to disrespect that property. Soon the car or the building would be vandalized or robbed. People would not pick up liter around it. It very quickly became a worthless thing because people thought of it as a worthless thing. The root of that thinking was the one broken window. 

Now I have heard this research used in reference to our spiritual life. If we have one sin in our life that we ignore or even if a community has one visible sin by one member they ignore then it can be like that broken window. The opinion of that person or that community drops a lot not because the sin is serious but because everyone knows it should be dealt with and it is not being dealt with. That says more than the sin itself. So we should deal with broken windows in our life. If we are in positions of leadership we should deal with broken windows in our community. We need to deal with them promptly because the way people think about you and the way you think about yourself is on the line. The damage done can be quick and dramatic.

So what does this have to do with policing? Apparently police in New York were referencing the same research to justify a policing policy that focused on not tolerating minor crimes. It was used a few years ago when Rudolph Giuliani was mayor and was widely seen as a major success.  The murder rate in NY dropped by more than 50% saving thousands of lives. 

The trouble is it takes a lot of police to do that. So how can you afford it? You focus on neighborhoods where the crime rate is high. Guess what the racial makeup of those neighborhoods is like? The police were already giving Blacks and Hispanics more attention for whatever reason. Now you are asking them to go into their neighborhoods in bigger numbers and enforce relatively minor laws more strictly. What could go wrong? 

The truth is that communities can be kept from chaos with cops or consciences. Using cops to do it will be quite messy. Using conscience is far preferred. The trouble is you have to go into the community and make a moral argument. Our society does not know how to do that. You have to convince the residents of this community that policing laws like cigarette sales more aggressively is a good idea. That there is a moral good that will be accomplished by doing that. If they are not convinced of that then it will just feel like a police state. 

It works the same way in the church and in our personal lives. If the church community is not convinced that a moral good is being done by excluding people in irregular marriages from communion then the policy will seem like a power trip from the church hierarchy. On a personal level, if we are not convinced that dealing with sins promptly and decisively is a good idea then we are going to feel abused by anyone pushing us to do that. 

Good must come from the heart. If it is imposed from the outside it can be fine for a while but the heart must change at some point or it won't be sustainable. Either we will go back to evil or we will resent whatever forces are preventing us from going back there. 

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